One of the most appealing things about fishing in general is that it's so unscripted. Many of us live pretty regimented lives, particularly during the week, with our commutes and workdays pretty similar. But once you head out on a boat, all bets are off, with weather and conditions and, particularly, with the critters that live in/around the water all being pretty unpredictable. Obviously that includes those things that end up on your line. (In fact I readily admit that's one of the reasons I find jigging so intriguing: More than most types of fishing, the "What is it?" factor keeps anglers guessing until they finally get a look at whatever grabbed their darting slice of lead.)
Sadly, I haven't been out very recently, but I was reminded this week of the sea's many mysteries courtesy of our popular Fish Facts column. Thanks to that, images of lots of fascinating and/or surprising catches cross my desk (along with many that are actually pretty ordinary but unknown to the anglers who caught 'em - and, as time permits, I try to reply with IDs of those).
First, SF's excellent contributor of underwater images, Jason Arnold, wrote in to ask about a phenomenon hard to believe - but one he captured on film and video: dolphin in 25 feet of water just off the beaches of southeast Florida. Not just one little chicken, either, but a whole school of much larger fish including a big bull or two, looking for forage in the green water. After catching a couple, Arnold jumped in with his photo gear.
That spawned a lively discussion on Sport Fishing's Facebook page, also worth reading. That brought to mind my own encounter with a 15- to 20-pound cow dolphin in the Pacific off Panama - while casting for roosterfish literally 30 feet from the rocks in about 15 feet of green water. Certainly not what I'd expected - though of course I should always expect the unexpected, which is one of the best parts of fishing.
The next day, I received an e-mail from a reader responding to our November/December issue's Fish Facts that led off with an item showing a small, stunningly colored deepwater fish titled, "Have You Seen This Fish?" In their response, describing the very rare swallowtail bass, our Fish Facts scientists said they were keen to hear from any other anglers who might have caught one of these. It turned out this reader had indeed seen that fish and had caught two, with photos to prove it. Surprise enough, but even more amazing: He caught 'em in an offshore canyon in the Northeast - far above what all the scientific literature claims is the northern range of the lovely fish.
You can read more about both of these unusual catches in future Fish Facts columns. You might read about a striking bright-red grouper, per a question submitted by Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Houma, Louisiana. He called the fish in his photo a "fireback grouper" (for reasons evident when you see the fish) and wondered if it could be a hybrid. This question was a rarity - one our expert ichthyologists couldn't readily say for sure. The fish has elements of both a black grouper and a yellowfin grouper (the latter being very rare in the northern Gulf of Mexico where this was caught).
Hopefully the comments here will serve as a good reminder to carry a camera with you on the water if you don't already and, if you do, to use it. When you have a chance to photograph some oddity, don't pass it up. Try to make your shots clear and in a resolution as high as your camera will permit. If it's a fish, try to get clear shots of its fins in their entirety, as well as its head and mouth: Scientists often rely on what are called meristic counts (e.g., fin spines and rays) and other structures to identify species. Then send the images and information to firstname.lastname@example.org. (As noted above, I try to respond to all such inquiries, whether or not they are likely to appear in the magazine, so at least you'll know about that weird critter lying on the deck of your boat in the photograph.)
Now get out there and catch an oarfish! (See one at www.bloodydecks.com/forums/baja-mexico-fishing-reports-discussion/81929-isla-san-marcos-sea-story-09-01-07-oarfish.html; the sea is indeed full of mystery and surprises!)